In the frame

Being slammed as boring is one thing, but the reputation of accountancy is suffering from a more sinister representation that can be seen by looking back through the film world.
Beth Holmes

Film Industry: a special report

When the very existence of a flaxenhaired gabbler like Chris Tarrant can actually increase the share price of the company he works at, it makes you realise that a high profile and the quality of your representation in the media can significantly affect the success of your entire industry.

Few accountants have a profile as high as Tarrant, whose announcement in October that he would extend his contract with Capital Radio saw a 7% leap in the share price, but that's not to say that the representation of accountants in the media is not equally important.

There are two types of portrayal that should be considered: factual and fictional. Tarrant gets media coverage for a number of reasons, not least his ubiquitous presenting roles.

In the news

Accountants get in the news by being accused of shredding documents and fraudulently disguising figures resulting in multi-billion dollar companies filing for bankruptcy. Then those same accountants lose their jobs and move from their plush offices, probably into similarly plush offices belonging to a competitor.

But their situation, and therefore reputation, is not helped - indeed it is practically decimated - by the fictional representation of accountants.

Compare accountants to counterparts, status-wise, in the professional world - lawyers, doctors and so on, who have somehow managed to attain the glamorous sheen applied to their careers by endless years of positive representations ( ER, LA Law, This Life, A&E, Casualty). For every doctor struck off for professional misconduct, there is a sexy George Clooney-esque TV doctor saving the life of a three-year-old in a fire.

The police should not disregard the effect programmes such as The Bill have on their recruitment success. Even dinner ladies have been thrust into the spotlight - favourably - thanks to Victoria Wood.

Not only am I hard pressed to think of any TV show, film or book that is solely based on accountants, but looking at the representation of one of the oldest professions (not that one) might explain why accountants are perceived by the public at large as 'anoraks' who sound like John Major (but without his voracious sexual appetite).

Turning on the television first. Look no further than the supremely popular, now defunct, US import Cheers. Accountant Norm Paterson, played by George Wendt, was portrayed as a boring dullard. He was a bartender's best dream and worst nightmare rolled into one. He was such a regular customer, you could set a clock by him. Every day he sat in the same seat and guzzled down beer after beer.

And now for something completely different

The Monty Python team, and especially Michael Palin, had a particularly acerbic desire to parody accountants. In a sketch entitled 'The Audit' Palin plays an accountant who announces company profits of one shilling before admitting that most of that has been swallowed up by the tax man and that he embezzled the rest.

One of the team's most memorable sketches is the vocational counsellor faced with an accountant who really wants to be a lion tamer. Again played by Palin, his creation, Mr Anchovy, is told by John Cleese's counsellor: 'You see your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.'

Even when the portrayal is 'against type' at first glance, such as Cameron in Queer as Folk, played by Peter O' Brien, a main character in the ground-breaking gay series set in Manchester ended up being dumped by his boyfriend, Vince, because he was too mature. For mature, read dull.

Being slammed as boring is one thing, but the reputation of accountancy is suffering from a more sinister representation that can be seen by looking back through the film world. This shows that accountants are not only portrayed as being interminably dull, but that they are also a bunch of crooks.

In Mel Brooks' 1968 film, The Producers, Gene Wilder plays - surprise, surprise - a sheepish accountant who suggests that if theatrical impresario Max Bialystock found investors for a flop, he could legally keep all the extra money. They conspire to select the worst play, the worst playwright, the worst director, and the worst actor to collaborate in gloriously un-PC production, 'Springtime for Hilter; a musical romp with Adolf and Eva'.

A more recent film, cult hit Shallow Grave, saw Christopher Eccleston as an accountant - again annoyingly stereotyped as a 'meek' individual, who becomes violently paranoid - understandably, after he and his flatmates dismember and bury a former flatmate and steal his money.

Honest work

Of course, there are examples of honest accountants as well, but they are few and far between.

In Schindler's List, German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) brings in accountant and financier Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to help run the factory. He staffs the plant with Jews who've been herded into Krakow's ghetto by Nazi troops.

But this, along with myriad other films, including The Closet, Ghostbusters, Nick of Time, Midnight Run and many more, demonstrate one more thing about the entertainment world's perception of the accountancy profession: that it contains only men.

The only film I could find showing a woman accountant was Moonstruck, in which Cher had to make herself look older and less attractive to play an accountant called Loretta Castorini.

Perhaps things are changing, though. Accountants have, to use a tired old cliché, hit the headlines recently and the profession is certainly more in the public eye than it is has been in the past, and there are efforts to shake off the stereotypical representations. Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (you can always tell the quality of the film by the 'does what it says on the tin' title, I find), stars Nick Moran as a lunatic accountant who uses a bookkeeping system to keep track of various terrorist acts.

And, for the time being, books remain the one medium through which accountants can be multi-dimensional. The Hamilton Conspiracy and The Girl was Happy, at least make accountants and their lives seem exciting.

Bring on the glitz

For God's sake, have a This Life or an A&E for accountants - This FRED? P&L? - make the lead characters sexy and charismatic. Don't make them criminals or, if you do, have more imagination than simply embezzlement storylines. The accountants' time has come - as a career accountancy has seen more press coverage in the last few months than ever before, but it's a bandwagon that would be much glitzier if television bosses and, dare I say, Hollywood itself, stuck up for it a bit more.


FILMS PORTRAYING ACCOUNTANTS Can you spot yourself? The Bachelor Party - 1957

This film centres around the impending wedding of a 30-something and his stag party. Mostly the film is seen through the eyes of the staid married bookkeeper pal who plans to cut loose.

The Producers - 1968

Theatrical impresario Max Bialystock's accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) suggests if Max found investors for a flop, he could legally keep all the extra money. They conspire to select the worst play, the worst playwright, the worst director, and the worst actor to collaborate.

Ghostbusters - 1984

Timid Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) is an accountant, and according to one review I saw 'hilariously pathetic'. The plot doesn't matter but it's basically about ghosts and busting them.

Moonstruck - 1987

Cher had to make herself look older and less attractive to play a widowed bookkeeper called Loretta Castorini for which she won an Oscar.

Midnight Run - 1988

Bounty Hunter Jack Walsh (Robert de Niro) is offered $100,000 to bring in embezzler/accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Mardukas hasn't told Walsh that he owes $15m to a mobster.

Schindler's List - 1993

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a German businessman brings in accountant and financier Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to help run the factory. He staffs the plant with Jews who've been herded into Krakow's ghetto by Nazi troops.

Shallow Grave - 1994

Three Edinburgh flatmates - journalist Alex (Ewan McGregor), nurse Juliet (Kerry Fox) and meek accountant David (Christopher Eccleston) - seek a fourth person to share their stylish flat. They end up dismembering his dead body, stealing his cash and going psychotic.

Nick of Time - 1995

A stranger pulled into a deadly scheme races against time to save his daughter in this thriller. Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) is an accountant who comes to LA with his daughter to attend a funeral.

Dead Man - 1995

Surrealist western in which Johnny Depp, who had clearly found his niche, plays another accountant, William Blake. He leaves Cleveland to take a job in the frontier town of Machine. When Blake arrives he finds the job has been filled. He gets drunk, murders somebody, is dangerously wounded and is mistaken for the poet William Blake.

The Closet - 2001

Meek Francois Pignon is an accountant whose personality is bland to the point of being non-existent; pretending to be gay gives him an exciting side to his life that his co-workers never knew existed.

The Parole Officer - 2002

The murder of an accountant is crucial to the plot of an inept parole officer (Steve Coogan) on the trail of corrupt policemen. 'It was horrific. I saw a man strangle a human being…well, an accountant,' he tells an ex-con whose help he is enlisting.

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